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Charity Apps – making them “Appen”

3 September 2010

How to create a smart phone application for your organisation, from Convio's Martin Campbell

With the recent launch of Apple’s iPad and the iPhone 4s back in June, there’s been a lot of talk about building ‘Apps’. What are these Apps, should your charity be thinking about building one and if so, how do you decide what type of App to build?

Firstly, what are Apps?

An App, or application, is what Apple calls third-party software programs developed specifically for the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. There are now over 200,000 (latest figures July 2010) relatively cheap and free Apps, in categories including games, entertainment, utilities, social media and lifestyle.

How do I decide whether to build an App?

As obvious as it sounds, an App will only work if it’s a particular activity that makes sense for the user to be doing on an iPhone or iPad. If you’re unsure whether your new App idea is a goer, then look at the list below to see if it ticks at least one of the following boxes:

  • It is an improvement on similar Apps already out there.
  • It is new to the world and solves a unique problem.
  • It serves a specific audience with particular needs.
  • It is fully interactive and engaging.

Which charities have already built Apps?

All this sounds great but what you really want to know is – which charities have created Apps and how have they gone about developing them?

So far, Apple has refused to approve charity fundraising Apps with ‘donate’ buttons on them – but there are many not-for-profits who have managed to create unique, engaging Apps to attract new supporters, encourage existing supporters to get involved and increase their online donations as a result. For example, The Battersea Dogs Home App shows images of dogs in need of a home, whilst WaterAid’s App allows users to find the nearest public toilet.

Scripture Union’s journey to create an App

We recently helped Scripture Union, a faith-based charity which uses the Bible to inspire children, young people and adults, to build an App.

The charity had an active web presence: a few years previously, they had established the WordLive project, the key aim of which has been moving from print publications to the web, email, RSS and podcast formats. They had also created a mobile version of their site, which enabled smart-phone users to access the site whilst out and about, helping to increase the popularity and use of the site.

The next stage for Scripture Union in their online journey was to develop their WordLive App, but why? The match between the word and multimedia content on WordLive is perfect for an application; plus, an app enables people to experience WordLive on the go in a way that the mobile site just won’t allow.

Even though the App was only launched a couple of months ago, the team at Baigent Digital and Scripture Union have been delighted with the level of interest and the number of global downloads so far.

What’s the process behind iPad/iPhone App development?

Stages in App development

 1. Think of a great idea, then determine which audiences would use your App and work out their needs. You’ll also need to look at:

  • The top 10 Apps in a few categories to get an overall feel for how they make use of iPhone/iPad’s unique navigation and how they present information to the user.
  • A few Apps that are similar in purpose or function to the one you want to build, to see what approach they’ve taken and if there are any areas for improvement.

 2. If you’re planning on doing the work yourself, you’ll need to:

  • Get an iPhone or an iPad (depending on what you want to develop) – and preferably, access to a Mac computer with Mac OS X 10.5.5.
  • Develop a non-disclosure agreement (to keep your great idea to yourself!)
  • Download and install iPhone SDK, the Apple resources needed to develop and code your App.
  • Register as an Apple developer.

You’ll also need:

  • An ability to assess what does and doesn’t work in the App marketplace, and can transform your idea into a tech spec.
  • Marketing skills (for research, promotion and marketing).
  • Programming skills.
  • Experience in designing for mobile devices, and sketching and producing user interface designs.

Can you do all of these things yourself? Probably not. The chances are that you need to find some resources to help you fill the gaps – which will probably range from agencies, to freelancers, to a friend-of-a-friend!

 3. Next, put pen to paper and draw each screenshot of your App. This will help to establish things like:

  • Size and shape of each element on the screen in relation to each other.
  • How the user will interact with each screen and move from one element to the next.
  • What info the user will see on each screen of the App and how this will be presented.
  • Once you’ve finalised your sketches, you can create the design concepts.

 4. Develop and test the code for your new App (this is generally best done by an experienced developer).

 5. Submit your App to the Apple store (don’t be disheartened if they turn it down, make changes and resubmit!)

Marketing is of course a crucial element; it’s all very well having a beautifully designed and realised App, but if your audiences don’t know about it, it won’t fly. So:

  • Before launch – Spread the word in target publications, inform subscribers by email, write a news release for your site and set up specific social media channels to build up the pre-launch excitement and buzz.
  • After launch – Encourage your supporters to spread the word about your App using your social media tools. Try and get blogs who may be interested in your App to try it and write a review. Other ways to drive traffic include running competitions; timing your App release around a suitable live event; and holding your own online or offline launch event.
  • In the future – Think of ways to develop your App for future releases and upgrades. Monitor feedback from users and suggestions on improvements to help with this.

In the end, whether you decide to create an App or not, the main thing is that your users have a choice of a number of interesting and exciting ways to engage with you.

But if you do come up with a great idea for an App: go ahead, get excited, get stuck in and good luck! 

Martin Campbell

director of innovation and strategy, World Vision

Martin works with his colleagues to provide the right technology and strategies for Blackbaud's clients to do their great work of making our world a better place.